Mighty Winds A-Blowin’

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

First Things First: A high-stakes political drama unfolded after the Senate Majority Leader announced the body would consider immigration reform ahead of anticipated climate legislation. The surprise political move caused a key Republican to bolt the tri-partisan effort to craft a federal climate program. The episode has greatly intensified doubts that the U.S. will pass a climate bill this year.

Two developments in offshore energy this week competed for both attention and nothing less than–cue Carmina Burana–the future itself.

Tough Climate in ‘Battle Born State’: Nevada state politics sometimes have an outsized influence on federal energy debates. That’s been true since at least 1987, when Congress designated Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as the geological storage site for America’s nuclear reactor waste.

With Nevadan Sen. Harry Reid in charge of the U.S. Senate, and now embroiled in a competitive re-election campaign, Nevada’s voice is speaking louder than ever. Last year, the White House eliminated funding to develop the Yucca Mountain facility. And state political pressures led to Reid’s announcement last week that the Senate will undertake an immigration overhaul before parsing climate legislation.

In response, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) threatened to pull out of intense, months-long work on climate policy with colleagues Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). Reports up to last weekend had cast the trio as upbeat, with momentum, as they negotiated with business and advocacy groups to support their effort.

Things fell apart Saturday when Graham released a blistering public letter on the matter, charging that the Democratic leadership put the immigration issue forward in “a hurried, panicked manner”:

This has destroyed my confidence that there will be a serious commitment and focus to move energy legislation this year. All of the key players, particularly leadership, have to want this debate as much as we do. This is clearly not the case. I am very disappointed with this turn of events and believe their decision flies in the face of commitments made weeks ago to Senators Kerry, Lieberman and me. I deeply regret that election year politics will impede, if not derail, our efforts to make our nation energy independent.

Graham pulled out of a Monday press conference when he would have released the bill he co-wrote with Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).

Strike That. Reverse It: Reid reversed himself on Wednesday, pointing out that it makes sense to pursue climate legislation first since there’s already a bill. That’s not the case for immigration, which exploded onto the scene after a new Arizona law empowered police to ask anyone for U.S. residency documents.

Despite the potentially mortal political damage inflicted on their effort, the three senators have released a description of their bill to the Environmental Protection Agency, where researchers will perform economic analysis on it in the next several weeks. The Los Angeles Times’ Jim Tankersley sees two implications for this move: It will provide useful input for senators, who need such an assessment before considering the bill; and it suggests that, in the absence of any other signals, it’s theoretically possible for the legislators to resolve their differences and get back to work. An energy-industry funded think tank, the Institute for Energy Research, has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the bill from EPA, since it has not been released publicly.

Getting Down to Business (or at Least Trying): The legislative stasis frustrates new markets and companies deciding whether they should or must participate in said markets. Some investors have been hoping a federal bill will define a voluntary market for carbon credits. It works like this: There would be many opportunities for emission reductions beyond mandatory efforts. Voluntary actions would generate carbon credits that large industrial companies can buy to offset their emissions (hence the name “offsets”).

With the climate bill comatose, high-profile news media are beginning to, uh, focus in depth on what the policy actually is and how long it has been around (NYT, NPR).

A World of Indecision: Clearly, the U.S. Senate is currently having trouble introducing legislation, to say nothing of passing it. And enacting legislation may not be the only hurdle, if California is an example. A ballot initiative would, if passed, suspend the bill until unemployment, currently 12 percent, falls below 5.5 percent and stays there for a year. The leading gubernatorial candidate, Republican Meg Whitman, has said she would put central elements of the state’s 2006 climate law on hold for a year. (Democrat Jerry Brown would let it be.)

International negotiations look no more productive. Officials from the BASIC countries–Brazil, South Africa, India, China–met in Cape Town this week. They called for the completion of a legally binding global climate treaty by this year’s 16th Conference of Parties (COP) meeting in Cancun, Mexico, or at the latest COP-17 in Cape Town. The German news magazine Der Spiegel reported this week that “Chancellor Angela Merkel is quietly moving away from her goal of a binding agreement on limiting climate change to 2 degrees Celsius.” Climate Post doesn’t like to make predictions, but will offer the observation that the COP-16 website is still under construction.

Anyone looking for a sign of tranquility this week in the energy and climate space might have to look up the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission. The oversight agency identified more than half a dozen kinds of contracts that deserve additional regulatory scrutiny–but the Chicago Climate Exchange’s contract for carbon credits wasn’t one of them.

American Companies Offshoring Jobs: Nine years after it was first proposed, Cape Wind Associates has won federal approval to build 130 wind turbines about five miles off the coast of Cape Cod. The fight pitted seaside private landowners and Indian tribes against developers and environmental activists. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the project will usher in wind power development all along the East Coast.

The specter of windmills rising in Nantucket Sound offers an alternative image to those of an oil rig collapsing into the Gulf of Mexico. Federal and BP company officials upped their estimate of the oil leaking from the wreck, from 1,000 barrels a day to as much as 5,000 barrels. Satellites have captured dramatic images of the spill heading toward the ecologically delicate Mississippi Delta.

Dept. of Bad Timing: The Minerals Management Service, an office in the Interior Department, postponed its 2010 Offshore Industry Safety Awards event, planned for next week.

Breakthrough in Commuter Transportation Policy?: Big legislative initiatives mean one thing to Hill staffers and the armies of lobbyists, journalists, and other observers peeking over their shoulders: Togetherness. No one wants to miss anything important. Reporters can be particularly conscientious, like Darren Samelsohn of Greenwire, who is as close as any journalist to ticking climate-related events in the Capitol.  Wednesday John Kerry posted to his Twitter stream: “Maybe Darren Samuelsohn and I should start carpooling, he’s my shadow in capitol [sic].”

Climate Post Readers, Meet Climate Desk Readers…: Several weeks ago, a consortium of publications launched the Climate Desk, a collaborative exploration of “the impact–human, environmental, economic, and political–of a changing climate.” The project brings together journalists from the Atlantic, Wired, Slate, Grist, Mother Jones, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and PBS’s Need to Know. Climate Desk will now also pick up Climate Post when it publishes “Thursdays at three.”

Climate Post (about), just shy of its first birthday, began as an attempt to reconcile two realities: People like to be informed but have very little time, and climate change is a monstrously vast sea of complexity involving many overlapping, interlocking scientific disciplines, technologies, economics, human behaviors and social systems, diplomacy, and heaven knows, politics. We try to be one-stop shopping for all you interested-but-busy people.

We’re a project of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University. Click for more on Climate Post, the Nicholas Institute, and Duke University.

Eric Roston is Senior Associate at the Nicholas Institute and author of The Carbon Age: How Life’s Core Element Has Become Civilization’s Greatest Threat. Prologue available at Grist. Chapter about Ginkgo biloba and climate change available at Conservation.

Why Isn’t the Keeling Curve More Famous?

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

First Things First: IBM will ask its 28,000 suppliers to monitor and disclose their energy use, heat-trapping gas emissions, waste, and recycling. Spread across 90 countries, the suppliers are compelled to install software designed to help firms understand their impact–if they want to continue working with the computing and services giant. “Ultimately, if a supplier cannot be compliant with requirements on the environment and sustainability, we’ll stop doing business with them,” said IBM’s John Paterson.

In Washington, the policy community anticipates in the next week or so the first public draft of a new Senate climate and energy bill. The bill will not surface on Earth Day, April 22, according to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “We don’t want to mix messages here,” he said, “I’m all for protecting the Earth but this is about energy independence.”

Capping It All off: The New York Times declared “cap-and-trade” dead several weeks ago, only to quietly run a sort of non-correction correction last weekend. The draft Senate bill is expected to create a market in which regulated companies can buy and sell permits to emit heat-trapping gases.

Leaks from the Senate suggest that the bill, written by Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.), Graham, and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), would impose limits on the industrial pollution of heat-trapping gases and allow regulated companies to buy and sell emissions permits. The utility sector would initiate the program in 2012, followed by heavy industry in 2016. The Senate bill will treat transportation fuels differently, requiring a “fee” levied after products are refined, and before drivers pump it into their vehicles. This sector-by-sector approach to climate policy has been greeted with some openness from a few Republican lawmakers, including Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Scott Brown (R-Mass.). Would new support offset a loss of support among Democrats angered by President Barack Obama’s recent announcement to expand offshore oil exploration?

When the troika introduces the bill, responsibility for moving it into the Senate goes to Majority Leaders Harry Reid. “His challenge could not be tougher,” writes Darren Samuelsohn in ClimateWire. Reid will try to navigate the bill to the Senate floor at the same time he’s juggling a new Supreme Court nomination, financial reform, and a rough re-election campaign. Graham and Kerry modestly disagreed on the possible implications for the climate bill of the Supreme Court confirmation process.

The Senate bill will reportedly also contain a provision that eliminates both the Environmental Protection Agency’s new greenhouse gas regulations, and state and regional climate programs. That would halt development of programs including the Western Climate Initiative. The WCI this week previewed a new analysis that projects an average price of about $33 to emit a ton of carbon dioxide in 2020. States could continue programs that improve energy efficiency or set renewable energy standards.

Down-to-Earth Business: Is most discernable “movement” in the environmental arena to be found this year in the private sector? Reuters finds supporting evidence. The still-tough economic climate encourages firms to cut waste and inefficiency, and sustainability offers a common approach. Strained consumer budgets discourage spending on premium “clean” products. (The consumers who are interested in shelling out a little bit more for a greener product might note that the EPA and Department of Energy’s Energy Star label just became stricter.) The trend calls to mind a catch-phrase of Gregory Unruh, a corporate sustainability expert affiliated with the Thunderbird School of Global Management: “Embed it and forget it.” He writes in his new book, Earth, Inc.: “We’ll reach the sustainability destination when we embed the principles that account for the biosphere’s sustainability to business practice in profitable ways” [pdf introduction].

Energy efficiency is the fastest path to sustainability for many companies, and by extension the least intrusive way for policymakers to push climate-and-energy goals forward. This week Nicholas Institute Senior Policy Associate Etan Gumerman co-authored an ambitious, widely received study with Professor Marilyn Brown of Georgia Tech that concludes smart policy should bring vast energy and financial savings. The modeling study shows that a suite of nine policies could result in $41 billion in energy bill savings, the creation of 320,000 new jobs, and a water savings of 8.6 billion gallons in 2020. “We looked at how these policies might interact, not just single programs,” Gumerman said. “The interplay between policies compounds the savings. And it’s all cost-effective. On average, each dollar invested in energy efficiency over the next 20 years will reap $2.25 in benefits.” The study was picked up by numerous major and trade media outlets across the country, and is available here.

Universities are stepping up their training of America’s future workforce. Engineering students increasingly seek programs that specialize in sustainability, drawn by renewed interest in industry and pushed by current and expected new government policies. US News and World Report writes, “Today’s engineering students are reacting to having grown up in environmentally ‘perilous times.’” [Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering includes an environmental engineering initiative as one of its four academic pillars.]

In the Clear: A panel dismissed charges of scientific fraud and other accusations levied against researchers affiliated with the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. Ron Oxburgh, an earth scientist, former defense adviser, and former Shell chairman, and colleagues pinged the climatologists for not consulting closely with top statisticians when they conduct their statistics-driven analysis of temperature records and proxy records. A statistician on the review panel said it was unlikely statistical errors undermine the basic science.

Cat Exits Open Bag: The Guardian publishes a memo detailing U.S. communications strategy in international climate talks. The document was found “on a European hotel computer and passed to the Guardian,” which doesn’t offer much of a clue for pinpointing who might have left it there. At the top of the list: “Reinforce the perception that the US is constructively engaged in UN negotiations in an effort to produce a global regime to combat climate change.”

Genie Exits Bottle:A volcanic eruption in Iceland has grounded aircraft in the U.K. and Europe, but early reports suggest it’s too small to have a noticeable short-term cooling effect globally. Sulfate aerosols released in volcanic explosions tend to have a cooling effect on the atmosphere. One controversial idea to manage climate change is to mimic eruptions by spraying aerosols into the high atmosphere from aircraft. For more on this and other “geoengineering” ideas, see (both!) of two great new books on the topic, Hack the Planet, by Eli Kintisch of Science, and How to Cool the Planet, by Jeff Goodell of Rolling Stone. I happily “blurbed” the former, and reviewed the latter recently in BusinessWeek.

Social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, are making previously obscure monthly data dumps from NOAA and NASA into regular conversation pieces among observers to the climate arena. The March numbers came out this week and zipped across blogs and news sites:

The combined global land and ocean average surface temperature for March 2010 was the warmest on record at 13.5 deg C (56.3 deg F), which is 0.77 deg C (1.39 deg F) above the 20th century average of 12.7 deg C (54.9 deg F). This was also the 34th consecutive March with global land and ocean temperatures above the 20th century average.

It’s worth asking, particularly as Earth Day queues up next week, will climate data eventually make it big as an economic indicator?

Why Isn’t the Keeling Curve More Famous?: For a couple of weeks, I’ve had a tiny bee in my bonnet along these lines and I finally figured out why. It’s this sentence in the Washington Post review of Ian McEwan’s new novel, Solar (I mentioned this in this space two weeks ago). Here:

The subject, though, is hot. Whether or not carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere, there’s no denying that novelists are warming up to the subject. [Emphasis added]

Initially I was just hung up on how someone hoping to come across as an informed person, or who is supposed to be an informed person, could string together these words with a straight face. The larger problem is that this is just one signal–anecdotally reinforced elsewhere–that many smart, educated, successful people don’t know that carbon dioxide is increasing in the atmosphere.

If Earth Day has any singular goal at all, and I’ve never been convinced, it should be this: Make the Keeling curve more famous. Deutsch Bank recently bought a huge billboard across the street from Madison Square Garden in New York City. It has a running tally of the tons of carbon dioxide humans have put into the atmosphere, in the spirit of the famous National Debt Clock. But what would happen if instead it were the Keeling Curve? With other Keeling Curves in Times Square, at the New York Stock Exchange, in Parisian art installations, projected on clouds on Earth Day like the Bat signal. What do the neuroeconomists and behaviorists say about this? Is there a Keeling Curve app yet for the iPad?

What do you think?

Graph courtesy Scripps Institution

Eric Roston is Senior Associate at the Nicholas Institute and author of The Carbon Age: How Life’s Core Element Has Become Civilization’s Greatest Threat. Prologue available at Grist. Chapter about Ginkgo biloba and climate change available at Conservation.

Read This. Read Now. Pay Nothing.

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

First Things First: The Obama administration today finalized greenhouse gas emissions standards for cars and light trucks first proposed last May. The practical upshot of the rules is a roughly 40 percent rise in fuel economy, to 35.5 miles per gallon, by 2016. The government said the measures would save owners about $3,000 in fuel over a vehicles lifetime, but add a grand on average to sticker prices.

Of Drills and Bills: Energy independence has attracted bipartisan support and high-level media interest at least since 1948, when the U.S. first became a net importer of oil. Calls for freedom from foreign energy sources (or for “energy security” among the more sober-minded) have grown particularly acute in recent years. Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin popularized the chant, “Drill, baby, drill!” during the 2008 presidential campaign. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich contributed “Drill here. Drill now. Pay Less.” Democrats have weakened in their rhetorical opposition to domestic offshore oil exploration as these slogans took off.

Politics can do funny things to strident partisan positions. Obama’s announcement this week on off-shore drilling might not be any more surprising than President George W. Bush’s re-purchase of oil-and-gas-leases off the Florida coast, during his brother’s, Gov. Jeb Bush, re-election bid. (“At the time, Bush’s decision was hailed by some environmental groups.”) Blood and electoral politics run thicker than oil.

The question, squarely framed by the New York Times, is, Will Obama’s political jujitsu work? Howard Kurtz, media critic of the Washington Post, runs amused through the top papers’ takes, from the NYT’s “nobody-much-likes-it” to the Los Angeles Times’ “this-won’t-accomplish-much” to right-wing pundit Don Surber’s observation that “Still, it is an admission by Obama that Sarah Palin was right.” He repeats the last four words about 125 times over a full browser page.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a key architect of the climate-and-energy bill expected in mid-April, said yesterday that Obama’s drilling proposal is a “good first step,” echoing other calls from Senate Republicans that the sale of drilling leases be expanded to include the eastern Gulf of Mexico, the West Coast, and Alaska. Graham and Lieberman at the end of last week chatted with reporters about two elements of their developing climate bill. Utilities would participate in a market for carbon-emission permits, and the oil industry would have to pay a “fixed fee” for their carbon emissions. Last week 10 coastal Democratic senators sent a letter to Obama admonishing the administration against “unfettered” drilling. Watch to see if Obama’s drilling announcement this week is sufficiently fettered.

Traders to the Cause: The 2009 results of the EU’s Emissions Trading System are drawing scrutiny. Analysts attribute to reduced economic activity an 11.2 percent drop in EU industrial greenhouse gas emissions, a number that falls at the high end of expectations. Critics say industrial firms that receive pollution credits for free are benefitting from cyclical market dynamics, instead of permanently reducing emissions by deploying clean energy technologies. The decline in carbon prices, reflecting the recession and diminished outlook for a global treaty, have led to carbon trading firms’ disappearance from HSBC’s index of companies involved in climate solutions.

EU authorities have stepped up enforcement of about $6.75 billion in tax fraud they suspect within the trading system. Spanish police arrested nine people suspected of running a “carousel fraud.” In this scheme, traders buy credits in one EU country without paying a value-added tax, and sell them in another country at a price that includes the price of a tax.

It’s confusing enough without the outright accusations of fraud. An executive board that oversees a carbon-finance program set up by the Kyoto Protocol has suspended four auditors in a year and a three monts. The most recent companies penalized are carbon-market auditors in Germany and South Korea, who may now seek clarification on the market’s rules.

Against the backdrop of sagging carbon credit prices in Europe, a group of economists led by the Stockholm Environment Institute’s Frank Ackerman and Elizabeth Stanton in the U.S., suggests that target costs of greenhouse gas pollution are too low to effect the scale of change that many scientists call for.

More ‘Sunlight’ in Climate Science: The U.K. Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee issued findings from its investigation into climatologists’ behavior as documented in emails hacked out of University of East Anglia servers last fall. The Members of Parliament, as many others before them, found little or nothing in the episode to weaken the evidence that suggests industrialization waste is transforming the global climate. But they slammed the climate scientists as a group for secretive handling of data. The MPs heavily faulted the university itself for the scientists’ poor responsiveness to Freedom of Information Act requests. Phil Jones, who stepped down temporarily under fire as director of the UEA’s Climate Research Unit, was exonerated by the committee. Newspapers, such as the Guardian, tack on garden-variety “he-said, she-said” evaluations of the report.

Data’s Gotta Come from Somewhere: Obama’s 2011 budget proposes increased funding for NASA’s aging Earth observation infrastructure—62 percent more by the end of 2015. The investments would shore up data streams on ocean temperature, ice extent, ozone, and anthropogenic carbon emissions.

Satellite monitoring would be much easier if the risks of launching tin cans to space weren’t so high. NASA expects to rebuild its Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO), after the initial model fell into far-southern waters. The OCO may be the best-named satellite ever. A triple pun, OCO is a normal acronym, a chemical diagram (carbon dioxide is a linear molecule, O=C=O), and a homophone of the Polish word for “eye.” This week Europe will launch its CryoSat-2, a device precise enough to measure changes in ice thickness within “a few centimeters” accuracy. The first iteration, CryoSat, was destroyed in a launch failure five years ago. This week’s most thought-provoking statement from a scientist occurs in the Nature story (see previous link) about CryoSat-2:

Technical problems with the rocket have already delayed the launch, which was originally scheduled for February. “I hope this time around probability is on our side,” says Duncan Wingham, CryoSat-2’s principal scientist, who will watch the launch from the European Space Operations Centre of the European Space Agency (ESA) in Darmstadt, Germany.

Beware of Dueling Headlines:

Green economy grows despite policy vacuum (DailyClimate.org)

Where have all the green jobs gone? (BBC News)

The truth is out there. Ernst & Young probes the renewables market in greater detail. A third of the jump in U.S. climate spending came from last year’s stimulus bill, according to a Congressional Budget Office report.

There’s Something up There… What do people think about climate change who rarely think about climate change? A minor indication came this week in a Washington Post book review of Ian McEwan’s new novel Solar (NB: The first paragraph of the review has an adult theme). The third paragraph addresses global warming:

The subject, though, is hot. Whether or not carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere, there’s no denying that novelists are warming up to the subject.

Perhaps I’m over-thinking this, but how is it intelligible to pose the question, even in a dependent clause, “whether or not carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere”? Certainly, there is carbon dioxide coming out of our tailpipes, smoke stacks, and melting permafrost. Maybe what’s accumulating in the air is something that has the same spectral and biochemical properties as carbon dioxide, but isn’t actually carbon dioxide.

At any rate, something that behaves identically to carbon dioxide is doing this. “Should” the author of the review (an editor) know that, even as a cute framing device, this dependent clause has negative communicative value?

Eric Roston is Senior Associate at the Nicholas Institute and author of The Carbon Age: How Life’s Core Element Has Become Civilization’s Greatest Threat. Prologue available at Grist. Chapter about Ginkgo biloba and climate change available at Conservation.